This is the final piece in a four-part series looking at how people in the community are rebuilding a year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
Dr. Jasper Ghuman says there was a “lot of fear” when going into work during the first wave of the pandemic last spring.
Ghuman, an emergency room physician at Surrey Memorial Hospital, said there was initially a “relaxed attitude because it was so far away.”
But he said then B.C. started recording cases, and seeing what was “happening in Italy and the other side of the world, it was scary.”
“It felt like so long ago, but initially when we first started, you thought, “OK, yeah, this will be over in a few months and we’ll be back to normal,'” he noted.
“You can see the slow progression of the changes that were happening in the (emergency room). We went from wearing no masks to then wearing masks when we saw patients to wearing masks all the time to wearing goggles all the time.
“I haven’t seen my colleagues’ faces for almost a year, and we have so many new staff members in the hospital now. I actually have not seen their full face yet.”
The last year, since the pandemic was declared in B.C., has been a “difficult year,” Ghuman said.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs. We’ve learned a lot in the past year. It is difficult to go back into where we started from, but I think we’ve come a long way, even regardless of where we are now.”
But now, Ghuman said he feels safe coming into the hospital.
“It’s amazing how much we’ve learned about the virus over the past year that I feel safe. I actually feel really safe coming into the hospital. Everybody has a mask on, the risk of transmission is so low if both people have a mask on. I feel comfortable.”
“We’ve made so many strides to make the ER safe … It’s a completely safe environment to come into, regardless if you have COVID or not.”
Dr. Victoria Lee, president and CEO of Fraser Health, said a year ago, “we were just learning a lot about the virus” and its impacts, while also comparing it to previous pandemics and SARS.
While some were “more optimistic” in their outlook for how long this pandemic could last, Lee said, “I think it was not unexpected that we would see multiple waves.”
Ghuman spoke to the Now-Leader the same day provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry called for a three-week “circuit breaker” to slow the spread of COVID-19 as B.C. heads into its third wave.
The latest regulations are very similar to some of those implemented last spring: the suspension of indoor dining and liquor sales, indoor adult group fitness and indoor religious services.
Ghuman said it was “difficult to see” and a “little bit unfortunate.”
“I think the public was getting excited with vaccines down the road,” he said. “People are seeing a sort of light at the end of the tunnel, but I think there was some complacency and I think some gatherings and people getting together.
“It’s a difficult decision to make, I mean, to balance the health of the community with the health of the economy, but at this point, what needs to be done needs to be done, just to bring the cases down.”
Ghuman said he hopes it will “at least allow us to catch up” in vaccinating the population, “and hopefully it will be a different situation a month from now.”
But he said he’s not completely surprised to see the rise in cases.
“I was slowly, slowly starting to see what was happening in other jurisdictions,” Ghuman said. “You could see the cases slowly starting to creep up. You were hoping to be pretty ahead in the vaccinations that it wouldn’t come to this, but I guess that’s the way it is.”
Asked if he thinks some of the changes implemented in the last year could stay, Ghuman said he doesn’t see the mask mandates being eased “for quite a while.”
“Hopefully, we’ll be much more prepared — hopefully, there’s not — but if there is ever another virus we have to worry about. I think a lot of these PPE protocols are probably going to stay in place for quite a while.”
Ghuman, who has been working in emergency rooms since 2004, said he started his medical training at an ER in Ontario.
“I was just seeing the tail end of SARS, and I never really got to experience much of it, but there was a lot of planning,” he noted.
“Then over the years, it’s just kind of withered away and (was) forgotten. I think if we had some of those contingency measures in place, we might’ve been more prepared. I think, hopefully, we’ll remember this and public health funding will continue so there’s better surveillance and we can move quickly.”
Throughout the pandemic, Lee said Fraser Health created a comprehensive preparedness plan and “very stringent” infection prevention plans.
Asked if she sees any of these plans continuing for the forseeable future, she said in some changes “we believe will be for ongoing or seasonal influenza.”
Lee added there could also be a component for getting prepared for an “extreme type of event,” ensuring health officials are able to utilize the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said that while it takes time to heal, this year has also been a time to “stretch and grow.”
“So much has been accomplished in the past year that would’ve taken 10 years to achieve,” she noted. “We almost have a different expectation or hope … of what we can achieve together.”
Lee said when it comes to what the world has accomplished in the past year, she said it was “not even imagined prior to the pandemic.”
“We’ve accomplished so much in the past year that would’ve taken 10 years to achieve.”
Ghuman agreed, pointing to the speed in developing multiple vaccines.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Ghuman, who received his first dose in January and second in February. “Going through medical school, you’re worried about how long it takes to produce vaccines, but with the technology these days, and all the data sharing … the whole world and community coming together for just one purpose, I can see why it happened.”